In the first three posts in this series, I described seven thought patterns that cause individual planners to think in ways that lead to plans with inherent weaknesses. These phenomena influence planners even when planners have enough time and resources to execute the planning exercise. They include widely held but inapplicable beliefs, several cognitive biases, and several organizational influences. But for plans devised by teams, there are additional effects that cause trouble as well. These phenomena are related to how teams think collectively. Let's begin with Group Polarization and Trips to Abilene.
- Group polarization
- Group polarization is the tendency of groups to adopt positions more extreme than any of their members would adopt if acting individually. When group members learn that their own more radical inclinations are shared by other group members, they tend to assess those inclinations as validated. This experience propagates through the group, in an emergent fashion, each member influencing the others, until the more radical position is firmly held by all. Members then feel comfortable abandoning any remaining reluctance or doubt.
- Planning teams are susceptible to group polarization. For example, when assessing risks for particular options, they must make judgments as a group. Judging a risk as high or low can determine whether or not they adopt a particular plan option. Other vulnerable judgments include vendor selection, staff assignments, effort estimates — almost anything the team must decide.
- Secret ballots provide one approach to mitigating group polarization. But the safety secret ballots provide is limited, because the team must necessarily engage in open discussion. For protection in open discussion, the team can appoint a "Curmudgeon Team" to oppose radical positions as they appear. Read about curmudgeon teams.
- Trips to Abilene
- In an insightful work, The Abilene Paradox, Jerry Harvey describes how a group can commit to a course that no group member favors. [Harvey 1988] When a group takes a "trip to Abilene," nobody feels that the group is behaving sensibly. Because they all feel that everyone else favors the group's choice, no one questions it openly. The group then takes action that no member agrees with.
- Planning teams, like all teams, are susceptible to the Abilene Paradox. They are especially susceptible when one of the team members is much more influential or powerful than the others. For the moment, call that person Gandalf. If Gandalf makes an off-hand comment that others interpret as a statement of preference, they might express support for it. And in an analogy to Group Polarization, the entire group might adopt Gandalf's idea enthusiastically, even though no one is enthusiastic about it. But unlike Group Polarization, the idea might not be radical. In some sense a trip to Abilene can be the "meh" form of Group Polarization.
- To a Group polarization and trips
to Abilene are examples of
emergent group behavior that
can lead to unworkable planslimited extent, groups can inoculate themselves against trips to Abilene by learning about the phenomenon and then adopting an intervention protocol consisting of three steps: noticing your own doubts, inquiring when you're uneasy, and checking for the Abilene itinerary. Read more about trips to Abilene.
- Three other emergent phenomena that lead groups astray are False Consensus, Groupthink, and Shared Information Bias. We'll explore how they can affect planners next time. Next in this series
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More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:
- Wishful Significance: II
- When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking"
was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations.
Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
- The Planning Fallacy and Self-Interest
- A well-known cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, accounts for many unrealistic estimates of project
cost and schedule. Overruns are common. But another cognitive bias, and organizational politics, combine
with the planning fallacy to make a bad situation even worse.
- The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error —
we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off
by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus.
- Cognitive Biases at Work
- Cognitive biases can lead us to misunderstand situations, overlook options, and make decisions we regret.
The patterns of thinking that lead to cognitive biases provide speed and economy advantages, but we
must manage the risks that come along with them.
- Seven Planning Pitfalls: III
- We usually attribute departures from plan to poor execution, or to "poor planning." But one
cause of plan ineffectiveness is the way we think when we set about devising plans. Three cognitive
biases that can play roles are the so-called Magical Number 7, the Ambiguity Effect, and the Planning Fallacy.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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